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The Mutoid's Tale

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Starburst Mark I Pursuit Ship Edmundsen Alpha

We don't need sleep, of course, but a 33% rest cycle is indicated to maintain optimal reaction speeds.

I (that is to say, the Starburst mark I pursuit ship pilot identified as Space Lieutenant ModEdmundsen Alpha-One) plug into the bunk socket, registering the slight tingle in my chest as my primary energy cell commences its recharge cycle, focus into the soprano chirrup that is Alpha-Two. 'Full systems check,' she says smugly, over the faint double echo of Beta-Two and Gamma-Two each starting their system checks, 200 spacials away in Edmundsens Beta and Gamma. 'Plasma capacity 95%. Main drive function normal.'

In the background, the reassuring murmur of Momi, 'Ship time fifteen oh two point 29. Sector three. Bearing two-five-zero-alpha. Time distort six. Holding.'

'Auxiliary drive function normal. Energy banks 85%.'

'Ship time fifteen oh two point 97. Sector three.'

'Main computer fully operational. Tight-beam communications functioning.'

'Bearing two-five-zero-alpha. Time distort six. Holding.'

'Short-range scans null detected. Life-support systems normal.'

'Ship time fifteen oh three point 64...'

Focus out again, letting Two fade back to a lime-green readout. Focus into the sky-blue line, see the shining white walls of the galley through Alpha-Three's eyes as he finishes punching the sequence of buttons to reconstitute the Commander's second-watch meal, snaps the three white rectangular cartons into the slots on the white rectangular mess-tray, and heads towards the Commander's cabin. I blink, and the dull white fabric of the cube ceiling a metre above my head snaps back into focus. I concentrate on the dimpled track left by a pulled thread. I don't want to see Space Commander Edmundsen through Three's eyes.

I terminate that thought process. Thought is a luxury, best strictly rationed.

'Ship time fifteen oh four...'

I dim the light to 15% (as recommended in section 32, paragraph 158 of the Standard Operating Procedures) and let Momi rock me if not to sleep, at least to the closest Modified equivalent.

'Ship time fifteen oh five...'

We're supposed to be machines. Machines built from living flesh.

And probably most of us are.

I'd learned to act passive, blank. As if I truly felt no emotions. Had no personality. No identity. It wasn't all that difficult. There was so little in my life to have emotions about.

But sometimes alone in my sleep cube, the link reduced to minimum intensity, I shed silent tears. Tears for the life I knew I must have lost. Tears for the dead woman that must once have been me.

But not very often. If thought is a luxury, how much more so tears.

Space Command Headquarters

Momi is Multi-Operation Machine Intelligence, of course: the shipboard central computer standard in Starburst-class pursuit ships. But I always call her Momi. I don't know why.

I do know that I miss her when I'm stationed back at base.

Active patrol duty periods alternate with base duty periods at Space Command Headquarters: 50% base duty is recommended in the Standard Operating Procedures. To allow time for training, the SOP database says, but I guess it's actually because there are more pilot-trained Modifieds than pursuit ships.

That's one of the things I comfort myself with in those occasional moments when I am unwatched even by the surveillance cameras and thought is safe. Relatively safe. (All Modifieds channels are monitored continuously with a random sampling pattern.)

On base, Modifieds are assigned into pairs for the entire sixty-shift duty period. So, whether I'm walking two paces behind Space Major Sheron on leave from the Galactic Third Fleet, cleaning living quarters in residential section seven, or replenishing my serum supply in the Officers section of the Modifieds quarters, I'm accompanied by the pursed lips and high cheekbones of Space Lieutenant ModAtali Beta-Two. She's even more po-faced than Two and Three on-ship. 'Confirmed, Space Lieutenant,' she says. 'On alert, Space Lieutenant.' 'Corridor clear, Space Lieutenant.' At least I'm not linked with her – few base operations require the degree of rapid co-ordinated response that is routine on-ship.

This shift we're unloading crates of dehydrated potato mix from a Jupiter mark II freighter docked into cargo section three. Troop rations. Some shifts I can almost feel glad that I've been Modified.

'Item four hundred and seventy-six,' I say. 'Contents: vitamin-enhanced dehydrated potato mix. Source: Zerok.'

'Confirmed,' she says, rapidly entering the data into the info-terminal.

'Item four hundred and seventy-seven. Contents: vitamin-enhanced dehydrated potato mix. Source: Zerok.'

'Confirmed,' she says.

'Item four hundred and seventy-eight,' I say. 'This one's vitamin-enhanced dehydrated potato mix as well.' I immediately regret my words, their non-standard tone: even such a minor infraction of procedures is a disciplinable offence.

'Source?' she asks.

'Source: Zerok.'

'Confirmed,' she says, but she does not input the data. 'There are twenty-two crates remaining,' she adds.

She glances at my face for a millisecond longer than is standard. I stare back, seeing her eyes for the first time.

'The info-terminal appears to be dysfunctional,' she says. 'I am unable to input item four hundred and seventy-eight.'

Space Lieutenant ModAtali Beta-Two's eyes are grey-green with fine strands of amber radiating from the pupil. I step towards her, towards the info-terminal. Its green data input light is blinking steadily, 1.2 times per second.

I could sound the alarm, have her arrested. I could overrule her mistake, order her to continue.

I say, 'Yes.'

Her rigid posture unstiffens slightly. I guess that she'd let out a breath but like me she's a Fully Modified, her respiratory system replaced by energy cells. Most Modifieds serving on pursuit ships are, it further increases low-pressure tolerance for conducting emergency repairs in the event of a hull breach.

'There's no surveillance device in the Jupiter mark II cargo hold,' she whispers, as we kneel down side by side by the info-terminal. Then, at standard volume, 'Unlocking the info-terminal service port,' she says.

I realise that the way she's balancing the metal cover blocks the surveillance camera's line of sight to my hands. I reach in, yank out a couple of connections, use a laser probe to fuse that whole area of the board, re-stow the probe in my ventrally-mounted maintenance kit. 'There has been a severe malfunction,' I say. 'The damage to the secondary circuit board cannot be repaired.' I stand up slowly, my body anticipating the blare of the Space Command Police sirens.

We walk together into the shaded depths of the cargo hold, our boots clanking in unison on the metal floor.

'Is it safe here?' I whisper.

'Nowhere's safe,' she says. 'You know that. But we have approximately fifteen minutes to repair the terminal before they send out a maintenance technician.'

'You've done this before.'

'Yes,' she says. Then: 'I thought you were a loyal Federation officer.'

'I thought you were.'

'You were always so correct, so nauseatingly efficient.'

'So were you!' I want to cry out, to hug her. I've seen Unmodified humans laugh sometimes, but I don't know how.

She touches my gloved hand gently. 'We should go back.'

We walk abreast in silence to the technical stores in hub section two, to requisition a secondary circuit board for a cargo section info-terminal.

At least now there is a 'we'.

~*~

Shifts come and shifts go. Nothing has changed as we, ModAtali Beta-Two and I, efficiently perform all our assigned duties without exchanging another unnecessary word or gesture. Yet everything has changed.

Now, when we march two abreast through the corridors and an Unmodified trooper barrels into me, heavy elbow in my chest, the hissed word 'Vampire' in my ear, I no longer imagine cutting his throat with the laser knife in my maintenance kit.

Now, when we occupy adjacent stalls in the Modifieds quarters, I no longer feel dirty when I refill my serum stores.

Time passes faster now.

~*~

I wait outside the Modifieds sleep section for ModAtali Beta-Two. She's two minutes and thirty-five seconds late. An eternity. Then she's marching down the long circumferential corridor towards me, a stiff-backed, matt-black cut-out melting through a large group of blue-coveralled Unmodified technicians. As she comes nearer, I realise that there's something wrong with her. She must be injured, but there's no obvious damage to her head or chest or limbs. I want to run towards her, hold her in my strong arms, make her well again. I stand stiffly to attention.

Then when she's only a hundred metres away I see what it is. She isn't ModAtali Beta-Two. The flashes on her uniform are the correct rank, but she's a centimetre taller, a kilogramme or two heavier, and her eyes are dark brown, not grey-green. I relax ever so slightly. ModAtali Beta-Two must still be on her way.

I'm wondering what could possibly have delayed her for so long when the brown-eyed Modified comes straight up to me, stops 1.5 metres away, salutes.

'Reporting for morning shift, Space Lieutenant,' she says.

'Acknowledged, Space Lieutenant,' I respond.

'Shift assignment: guard duties, cell B thirty-one,' she says.

'Acknowledged,' I say, and we walk abreast in silence to cell block B. I have to concentrate on each heavy paired tread to prevent the nausea in my head surfacing in my facial expression.

'Has Space Lieutenant ModAtali Beta-Two been transferred?' I ask. She couldn't have been transferred, we still have sixteen base shifts remaining. I would have been informed.

'I am Space Lieutenant ModAtali Beta-Two,' the brown-eyed Modified says.

~*~

I don't know how I survive the next three shifts. Every step I expect the gloved hand on my shoulder, the sting of the cattle prod where my guts would be if they had not been replaced with ventral serum stores. I think. (Unmodified human anatomy is not part of the standard Starburst pursuit ship pilot databank, and I've never received the data implant for direct combat.)

Off-duty is little better. I'm at a recharge point, pretending to listen to a report from Three about the status of a minor modification to the ship's auxiliary drive that is threatening to confine us to base duty for another ten shifts. His deep baritone voice drones on (my aural sensors are recording it for future reference), but I'm straining to hear the newsvid running on the far side of the Officers section. Waiting for the arrest order regarding ex-Space Lieutenant ModEdmundsen Alpha-One to be announced. Waiting for my chance to run screaming through the endless shiny white corridors before everything turns black, or red. (Plugged into a recharge socket, running and screaming are unlikely to be available options, of course.)

Automatically register a low intensity male voice pattern, match with databanks. Space Lieutenant ModAtali Beta-One. Three's baritone and the newsvid both disappear instantly.

'Silly fool spaced herself through a cargo ... in section five,' I hear.

Then a second even fainter voice, recognised with 75% probability as ModAtali Beta-Three, but I can't make out any of the words.

'She self-administered ... niverone ... stolen ... medical stores...' I catch from ModAtali Beta-One, who's lowered his voice even further.

Preniverone? Suddenly the nausea is almost overwhelming and I don't know whether it's from relief or disgust. I shut my eyes tight. Retrieve the full item from my databank just to check.

Preniverone mesylate: Chemical formula: C26H25F3N6O5.CH3SO3H. Molecular mass: 654.6. Therapeutic class: CNS-active. Major therapeutic uses: Memory restructurative therapy. Erasure of higher cortical functions prior to reprogramming (applicable to Modified units only). Access: Restricted class 3. Route of administration: Subcutaneous injection. Dosage—

'Are your functions impaired, Space Lieutenant?' High volume. Three's baritone. There's a strange edge to his voice that the new 'we' part of my brain processes as ... concern? 'Shall I accompany you to the medical section?'

Somehow I find enough voice to acknowledge, mutter something about power surges via the recharge socket.

I'm ashamed but now relief is the strongest emotion. I'm safe. Safe. Safe!

I push down the dangerous 'we' part of my brain, squash it into dormancy. Avoid Three's eyes.

~*~

I see ModAtali Beta-Two – the one with grey-green eyes – again only once. Though her eyes are still grey-green with flecks of amber, they're dull now. There's a purple scar on her left cheek that wasn't there before, and her skin matches the pale grey of her coveralls.

Light grey. Special situations clean-up crew, sub-category infectious hazard. I feel relief that she's been dead for over ten shifts now.

I watch her board a transport to Fosforon.

Starburst Mark I Pursuit Ship Edmundsen Alpha

Pulled thread marring the perfection of the sleep cube ceiling. My sleep cube ceiling. I could stare at that thread track for hours. And do.

Distinctive thump thump thump of the Commander's boots in the corridor. Scratching sound as he runs his long nails along the metal partition wall, as he often does at these times. Hiss of the door opening, little rattle it always makes. (Memorandum to report the dysfunction to Maintenance next base period.) Squealing noise of the sleep cube closure.

Try to imagine grey-green eyes with their tracery of amber instead of these dark-brown ones, and a different kind of touch altogether.

Fail. Not that it would be a betrayal, no (that betrayal's past), but all I see are the flat eyes that belong to that grey stranger. Grey coverall shroud obscures her real face.

I close my eyes (I can't remember what colour they are) and think greedily of the mean life expectancy of Modified pursuit ship pilots: 405.3 days. Listen to Momi.

'Ship time sixteen ten point 53. Sector five. Time distort four. Accelerating: vector three-seven-zero-delta. All shipboard systems fully functional,' she sings.

And Momi always knows best.